It’s the guy on top, of course, Ralph Waldo Emerson, whose most ambitious work, “English Traits,” is a treatise on the superiority of the English race to all others: Africans, Indians, the French, and the Irish.
Poe abhorred the sort of pedantic sermonizing for which Emerson was famous; elevating American literature with his breakthrough brand of scientific populism, Poe navigated the pre-Civil War years working and living in the North as a compromise figure, despised by militants on both sides. It is easy to forget, even today, that a middle ground between militant pro-slavery and militant abolitionism did exist, where Poe chose to stay, as he transformed and modernized world literature.
So what was a Yank like Emerson thinking, writing his race-baiting tract, in the years leading up to the America civil war? “English Traits” was published in 1856, a few years before the gunfire at Fort Sumter. Poe died in 1849, before the Compromise of 1850, before John Brown’s raids, and Poe never published any papers on slavery or race, staying clear, in a time when it was almost impossible to do so, of those hot topics which eventually produced the divisive holocaust of 1861–1865.
English Traits? Why English? Wasn’t Emerson a leading American author? Wasn’t Emerson aware that England’s global ambitions were responsible for America’s system of slavery in the first place, that England wanted her American colony back and that England was exploiting American division on race to effect that end? Why, in his “English Traits,” would Emerson assert that India belonged to England because the English race was superior to the Indian race? Why did Emerson go so far as to remind his readers in “English Traits” that the English “sea kings” had a “long memory” and might rise up and take back their colonies if the times were right?
It kind of makes a Yankee scratch his head—and wonder.
Poe and Emerson famously did not get along.
Perhaps their quarrel was more nuanced and subtle than has been previously thought? Perhaps it was more geopolitical, in nature? Emerson, when he wasn’t living in comfort in Cambridge, Massachussets, was wined and dined in England. Poe, after visiting England as a boy, and perhaps sailing to Paris as a young man, spent his literary career attempting to establish (while almost starving) America’s literary independence while living in Boston, Baltimore, Richmond, Philadelphia, and New York.
It does cause one to scratch one’s head just a little bit, and wonder.
Does it not?